On the third floor of the Student Union on October 20, I attended a meeting of UMKC’s own Muslim Student Organization and spoke to a number of student members about the club and what it is like to be among the 30,000 Muslims living in Kansas City. Ultimately the experience was as gratifying as it was educating, and I soon discovered that most members were enthusiastic about sharing their beliefs with curious observers like myself.
Though the organization boasts well over a hundred members, the weekly meetings and prayer sessions held on Friday from 12 p.m. to 2p.m. usually have a turnout of roughly 15 to 20 attendees. I showed up near the end of prayer and approached a few members afterwards who were fraternizing and quickly fell into conversation with a Muslim student named Hajar.
Hajar was born a citizen of the United States but emigrated back to her family’s country of origin, Syria, when she was only four. Now a full-time pre-dental student, Hajar spent most of her childhood in Syria. She returned to the U.S with her family around the time of the 2011 Arab Spring, just as tensions in the country were escalating as Bashar al-Assad’s regime attempted to suppress violent insurgents attempting a government coup.
For these reasons, Hajar considers herself remarkably fortunate and believes the atmosphere at UMKC is one that welcomes a diverse array of students, particularly Muslims. Hajar noted that she connected with fellow Muslim students at UMKC shortly after first enrolling and has since befriended many more through the student group.
Hajar was also keen on the fact that UMKC has designated prayer rooms in the library for the convenience of Muslim students who follow a routine that often requires multiple prayer sessions throughout the day. Her high school did not have this luxury, and she was left with no choice but to pray openly in front of other students, often causing confusion or disturbing her concentration.
Seeing that Hajar wore a hijab but did not conceal her face, I was curious to know if most of the other female members of the club sported the same style. Interestingly enough, she informed me, there are Muslim women in the organization who wear their hijabs in a variety of styles, ranging from covering their entire bodies to keeping their hair completely uncovered. This reinforces the diversity of the Muslim Student Organization and the fact that not all members express their faith in the same fashion.
Certain women feel compelled to cover their bodies, while others choose to allow their hair to flow freely, but all seem to come together for the same cause. Indeed, one of the organization’s events Hajar was most excited to discuss was the women’s swim night in which female members who do not go out in public unveiled can privately let down their hair and swim in the campus pool.
As we continued our conversation, a friend of Hajar’s named Ahmad, who is also a pre-dental student, joined our discussion. As the conversation moved towards the current election and the refugee crisis, I asked if either of them have felt any discrimination at UMKC. Though neither claimed to have felt any discrimination on campus, they still have their reservations about society outside of the university.
Ahmad said he is often discouraged by the poor treatment Muslims seem to receive in the news and said, “Who [we] see on media is not who we are.” Though Ahmad feels welcomed at UMKC, he reminded me that he has Muslim friends enrolled at other universities who are not as fortunate as him. On the same subject, Hajar said that we “can’t judge an entire religion based on a group of people.”
Non-Muslim students who are interested in understanding Islam are invited to attend any meeting or bi-weekly halaqa, or meeting of religious study, so that they can achieve a better perspective on the student population of UMKC.